The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion CNN host dreams of a ‘whole network’ for ‘independent thinkers’

Pedestrians enter CNN Center, the headquarters for CNN, in downtown Atlanta in 2001. (Ric Feld/AP)
6 min

When he joined CNN in 2014, Michael Smerconish blasted a poisonous news landscape. “The country is paying a price for this brand of polarized media. … Too many politicians are taking their cues from people with microphones.”

The way he approached news coverage, Smerconish said at the time, was "perfectly suited for CNN’s non-ideological brand.” Smerconish hosts a Saturday morning show on CNN as well as a show on SiriusXM.

Eight years after his arrival at CNN, Smerconish is hyping the possibilities of a network dedicated to the country’s center. In a recent panel discussion, the host pointed to a Gallup finding that 42 percent of Americans identify as independents.

“Why not say, ‘Hey, this is the path. We’re not going to be MSNBC, we’re not going to be Fox. We’re going to go after independent thinkers’?” Smerconish said Oct. 7 at the Un-Convention, a gathering designed to “find common ground” across politics. "And I don’t just mean just me on Saturday. We’re going to build a whole network around that principle.”

Does that appeal mean Smerconish no longer believes CNN is a “non-ideological” network? He responds via email with a quip straight from the centrist’s credo: “A good day for me is when half of social media say they hope I’ll be fired because I belong on Fox, and the rest complain that I’m carrying water for [President] Biden.”

Follow Erik Wemple's opinionsFollow

As Smerconish’s comment suggests, the country is split into opposing camps. That’s one factor complicating his dream of a middle-pleasing cable-news network. Another is the colossus that continues drubbing all competition in this industry: Fox News.

In 2010, Smerconish exited the Republican Party and declared himself an independent. “Where political parties once existed to create coalitions and win elections, now they seek to advance strict ideological agendas,” he explained in a HuffPost essay. His own views — hard-line on national security and immigration; less extreme than the GOP on abortion; in favor of gay rights; unsure on climate change — placed him in a “partisan no-man’s-land,” he argued.

In-your-face moderation has been his thing ever since. On his CNN show, Smerconish takes on big issues, accords them meaty treatment and presents multiple viewpoints — a formula that would presumably take hold at his centrist media outlet. Asked at the Un-Convention panel discussion whether his organization would platform someone who spouted election-fraud lies, Smerconish responded yes — but with appropriate journalistic pushback.

But why? “Because if I’m looking at data that says Republicans believe this, I feel like I’m not doing my job unless I air it in a critical way,” responded Smerconish.

In that discussion, Jeff Zucker, who for nine years served as president of CNN Worldwide, expressed reservations about Smerconish’s concept. First of all: “The reality is there’s not 25 of you,” said Zucker, referring to skilled broadcasters who aren’t ideologically typecast. Another consideration: “I’m not sure there’s enough day-in, day-out passion for that to succeed.”

Passion is an open question. While a great mass of Americans call themselves independents, an “overwhelming majority” of them “lean” toward one party or the other, according to Pew Research Center. That said, there is a middle out there, says Chris Tausanovitch, an associate professor of political science at UCLA. Whereas there’s a significant ideological gap between the most moderate politicians of each party, there’s a more “continuous distribution of views” within the general public — millions of people for whom “it’s not clear whether the Democratic Party or the Republican Party is a better fit,” says Tausanovitch.

What’s more, younger generations are showing less appetite for major-party affiliation than their parents, notes Thom Reilly, a professor at Arizona State University’s school of public affairs: “I think people are craving for nonpartisan government and media.”

Nexstar Media Group certainly believes they are. In 2020, it launched NewsNation, a product that would serve up “unbiased” news, a middle course between the extremes on MSNBC and Fox. The code name for the undertaking was “Project Neutral,” according to the New York Times, though some staffers saw it veering toward Project Partisan. Coverage on Donald Trump was soft, staffers told the Times, and Bill Shine, a former Fox News co-president and Trump White House official, had been brought on as a consultant.

Who said an ideologue can’t guide a straight-news operation?

The evening lineup for NewsNation features hosts with backgrounds at Fox News (Leland Vittert), CNN (Chris Cuomo and Ashleigh Banfield) and ABC News (Dan Abrams). Just before Cuomo’s show launched, podcaster Kara Swisher pressed him on the “nonpartisan” branding. “I’ve always been nonpartisan,” he argued.

“Having watched you every night, I would not agree with you,” Swisher said, adding ballast to Zucker’s point about the availability of broadcasters with centrist bona fides.

No matter your view of the NewsNation lineup, it’s struggling to find viewers. Its prime-time programming averaged 51,000 viewers in the third quarter of 2022, alongside nearly 2.2 million at Fox News. “Networks are built over time, and our network isn’t even 24 hours yet,” Sean Compton, the developer of NewsNation and president of networks for Nexstar, said in a statement to the Erik Wemple Blog. He added that the network has seen audience spikes of late.

Political leanings don’t always determine viewing choices. As Jack Shafer noted in Politico, Fox News defies intuition by pulling in sizable hordes of Democrats and independents. “Turns out everyone likes to be entertained,” he writes. A network hatched in Smerconish’s spirit may well be able to signal to both Democrats and Republicans that it’s not a partisan outfit, says Tausanovitch. But, he notes, “It’s another matter to convince some group in the center, whether it be moderates or independents, that you are one of them.”

We’re now more than 40 years into the cable-news era, a span in which producers have learned all the little tricks and tactics that keep people tuned in. “More things need to happen than just to have a lot of moderates for a centrist media network to be successful,” says Tausanovitch. “It would have to be compelling.”